President Nancy Pelosi (D-California) recently made world headlines when she arrived in Taiwan amid strong rebukes from the Chinese government. Pelosi is the most senior US government official to visit Taiwan since President Newt Gingrich visited in 1997.
Pelosi’s visit was meant to send an unequivocal signal: Taiwan is so important to the US government that senior officials are prepared to surrender despite stark warnings from Beijing. The logic behind the move is a simple case of diplomatic deterrence — by signaling force, Pelosi was aiming to deter China from exerting influence over Taiwan. His fear is that inaction is a sign of weakness, encouraging Beijing to act aggressively. But that’s only part of the story.
US government deterrence could increase the risks of confrontation, which could be immediate and obvious. For example, China responded to Pelosi’s visit by conducting military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Fortunately, these drills did not result in unintended escalation, a real risk with shows of force.
But perhaps more importantly, Pelosi’s deterrence-focused visit could contribute to a longer-term “perception dilemma.” A perception dilemma exists when parties to a potential conflict prefer to cooperate but believe that the other party will benefit from their calming actions. Thus, each side avoids appearing weak.
The problem with deterrence is that it reinforces the fear on the other side that cooperative actions will be met with opportunism. The result is that conflict and confrontation are After probably both sides are flaunting their power. Whether deterrence works or contributes to a spiral of conflict is an open question. But it is something that must at least be considered in the case of Taiwan and beyond.
The US government has no legal obligation to defend Taiwan. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter canceled the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which required the United States to defend Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 delineates US-Taiwanese relations but does not guarantee US military protection against invasion.
Perceptions are particularly important because the U.S. government has long pursued a “one China” policy, which recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China, while engaging in “strategic ambiguity” regarding its commitment to defend Taiwan. Washington’s actions to signal force – even if motivated by benevolence – could increase the risks of conflict not only between China and Taiwan, but also between China and the United States, two nuclear powers.
This also matters beyond Taiwan. The US government maintains a global network of military bases, deploys special operations around the world, and is the world’s largest arms dealer. It spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined, including China and Russia. The logic behind these expansive forces and activities is the supposed need for a global hegemon to create and maintain order and freedom in the world. Maybe. But another result could be disorder and a greater risk of conflict by elevating force above peaceful cooperation. By signaling that force is the default strategy, power projection can make it harder for others to offer cooperative gestures.
None of this is to deny that there are real challenges in the world, as there always have been and always will be. Instead, it is to point out that the nature and scale of these challenges can be exacerbated by policies based on a global negative worldview akin to a global game of musical chairs. From this point of view, each nation only wins at the expense of the others and therefore possible adversaries must be controlled by deterrence.
Another view is that there are many opportunities to work together to find solutions with other nations. Instead of signaling weakness, working toward nonviolent solutions to pressing challenges shows significant strength through self-control and determination consistent with so-called American values. It is a perception to cultivate.
Christopher J. Coyne, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and professor of economics at George Mason University. He is the author of the forthcoming book “In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Madness of the American Empire and the Paths to Peace.”